Environment

Australian seaweed found to eliminate more than 99% of cow burp methane

Livestock accounts for up to 5 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas production, but a strain of seaweed could cut that significntly
Livestock accounts for up to 5 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas production, but a strain of seaweed could cut that significntly
View 2 Images
Asparagopsis reduces methane in the lab by up to 99%.
1/2
Asparagopsis reduces methane in the lab by up to 99%.
Livestock accounts for up to 5 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas production, but a strain of seaweed could cut that significntly
2/2
Livestock accounts for up to 5 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas production, but a strain of seaweed could cut that significntly

Australia's CSIRO has identified a strain of seaweed that can reduce bovine methane emissions by more than 99 percent if added to cow feed in small amounts. This could be huge for climate change, but it also has significant benefits for farmers.

I thought this was a cow fart story; it's not. Sadly, according to Australia's CSIRO, the vast majority of bovine methane – some 90 percent of all emissions – comes from burps, not from backdraft.

But whichever end it comes from, methane represents a problem. In climate change terms, methane is a greenhouse gas 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. In agricultural terms, when cows burp out methane, as much as 15 percent of the energy in their feedstock is being thrown away instead of converted into meat.

For more than a decade, researchers have been aware that adding seaweed to a cow's diet made a significant reduction to that methane release, leading to cleaner agriculture and better meat production. Early tests found seaweed could cut back methane release by as much as 20 percent.

But recently, Australian scientists have been re-running tests with a variety of different species of seaweed to find out which is the most effective, and now, a very clear winner has emerged.

Asparagopsis reduces methane in the lab by up to 99%.
Asparagopsis reduces methane in the lab by up to 99%.

Asparagopsis taxiformis, which grows in the tropical coastal waters of Queensland, Australia, was found to reduce methane production by more than 99 percent in lab testing, smashing the previous records so badly that the researchers had to double check to make sure their equipment wasn't broken.

This unique seaweed species appears to almost totally disrupt the action of gut enzymes that produce methane, keeping feed energy in the cow and not out in the atmosphere. And it appears to be effective at low doses, compared with other strains.

The question from here is: what can be done with this? There is currently no commercial scale production facility dedicated to this species of seaweed, and the CSIRO estimates you'd need somewhere around 60,000 hectares (some 232 square miles) of seaweed farms to produce enough to give an effective daily dose to all of the 2.5 million-odd cows in Australia alone. Obviously, rolling such a thing out globally would be a massive operation.

But the benefits are clear: farmers would get significantly better value from their feedstock, which is the biggest ongoing expense of most cattle farming operations. And with livestock contributing up to 5 percent of human-generated greenhouse gases each year, there's an opportunity for some pretty significant reductions to be made.

More information: CSIRO

15 comments
VincentWolf
Good industry to invest in!
LeahC
Oh of course, once again its easier to change the environment and nature instead of simply changing our diets which has proven to be detrimental to both the world and ourselves. Next thing you know people will be raping the sea of yet another vital organism. Its simple, stop growing cows and instead use the land for plant based food (plants clean the air and create oxygen) - research has shown meat is a very in-efficient way of feeding people, if this was done there would be enough land and food produced to feed a population of 1.5 times that of earth currently. Instead of all the poverty in the world. besides, in a world where we are looking at sending people to colonize Mars etc, surely we don't need to kill living creatures so that we can live! Rant over.
Rockyredneck
What is needed is to isolate the why. Perhaps a cheap synthetic product could be developed that would prevent mono-cropping the sea (a development that appears repugnant to me.)
yawood
@LeahC. But it doesn't taste as good as meat.
fb36
@Rockyredneck: That is what drug companies often do. They find a useful chemical from a plant, create a synthetic (and simpler) version of it (which can be patented, unlike the natural version, and easier to produce) and sell it for any price they want. But the problem is the synthetic versions of drugs come with dangerous side effects, unlike the natural versions!
StWils
Rocky is mostly right. But instead of making a synthetic substitute perhaps existing typical feedstock plants such as alfalfa can incorporate the needed biochemistry. And Leah can pound salt, no way does creamed bugs or funky plant salsa ever come close to replacing an actual thick steak!
Qiltroll
It's not the burp that will kill ya.
byrneheart
I hardly think mono cropping would be a problem. 262 miles is tiny. I could easily see a licensing system like that for oyster farmers giving square mile cropping permissions.
habakak
LeahC...we currently produce enough calories to feed a population of about 10 billion people. The problem is in distribution and the food not grown where it is needed. And don't decide for the world what they can and can't eat. Humans have always worried about some apocalypse.
Nathaneal Blemings
Just because it cant be patented doesnt mean its not worth recreating in a lab, and even if you recreated a synthetic version that was abit different for the purpose of patenting it, its really anyones guess if it would have negative effects. Atleast we have a very promising discovery on how we can stop methane, i honestly dont think it would be that costly to isolate and reproducing whatever chemical it is to be added to feed. A couple things however. Notice how it said it reduced 99% of methane, meaning likely some of the gut flora that produce methane were immune to it, it stands to reason that like antibiotics the gut flora might develop a resistance. Also worthy of mentioning, as of late we are discovering how important gut flora is to our(humans) health, if our gut flora gets out of whack it can cause all sorts of diseases or conditions... if we eliminated these gut bacteria it could have a negative effect on the cows health, maby. And to the guy saying 262 miles is tiny, remember this is only talking about whats needed for australia alone, for the rest of the world there would need to be alot more, and the cost of growing that much seawould over that much area would be very cost prohibitive, atleast if it was only used for cowfeed.
Thanks for reading our articles. Please consider subscribing to New Atlas Plus.
By doing so you will be supporting independent journalism, plus you will get the benefits of a faster, ad-free experience.